July 26, 2022
The town of Sumner in north-central Missouri is known as the "Wild Goose Capital of the World." The sleepy burg of about 100 people celebrates this distinction with an annual Goose Festival that dates to 1955, and is home to Maxie, the world’s largest goose.
The giant honker statue was erected in 1976, stands 40 feet tall and weighs just over 5,000 pounds. To say Sumner is proud of its renown in the waterfowling world would be an understatement.
Canada geese may have put Sumner on the map, but today snow geese draw a lot of hunters to the famed region known as the "Golden Triangle," which includes Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Fountain Grove Conservation Area, Grand Pass Conservation Area and the Missouri River. There is a lot of public-hunting opportunity in this area, thanks in large part to Missouri’s model of conservation funding.
Back in 1976, voters passed an amendment to self-impose a one-eighth-of-one-cent sales tax to directly fund the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).
Voters turned out favorably to support the idea that tax dollars would be used to purchase and manage land for public use. For nearly 50 years, the MDC has delivered on that promise. Areas of conservation concern and lands well suited for outdoor recreation—mainly hunting and fishing—have been added to the system ever since.
Today, the MDC owns and manages close to a million acres of well-managed public land, and plenty of it includes prime snow goose territory in central Missouri.
Thankfully, this quality public land is available for all to enjoy; you don’t have to be a resident of Missouri to use the state’s resources. There are different types of draws and reservations for waterfowl hunting, so anyone interested should study up on the MDC website before making a trip. You can also always hunt the river, but you’ll need a boat and some solid snow geese hunting knowhow if you plan to tackle the Big Muddy.
Established in 1937, Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge serves as a breeding grounds and sanctuary for migrating waterfowl. Its 10,795 acres were developed into prime wetland habitat for ducks and geese by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Initially, ducks were the primary species of concern at the refuge, but after Canada geese were observed there for the first time in the early 1940s, they became the focus.
The normal snow goose season set by the MDC opened Nov. 11 and runs to Feb. 6, but the Light Goose Conservation Order (LGCO) immediately follows. This special season, set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help reduce the snow goose population causing harm to critical tundra habitat, affords hunters an extended opportunity to shoot “light geese.” The LGCO runs from Feb. 7 through April 30 and is open across all of Missouri’s waterfowl zones. Light geese include snow geese—both white- and blue-phase birds—and Ross’s geese.
The hunting at both Grand Pass and Fountain Grove can be lights-out for the DIY hunter. These conservation areas are recognized as two of the top public waterfowl hunting spots in the state, and that carries over into the LGCO for snow geese. It is still possible to obtain permission to hunt private agriculture fields, but many of them are leased up these days. Opportunities are there for the guys getting after it on their own if they have the right equipment.
While there’s a lot to love about hunting snows on Missouri’s public land, outfitters are certainly a solid alternative, mainly because hunting snow geese can be such an ordeal. Decoy spreads usually number in the thousands. There are multiple blinds, electronic callers (legal during the LGCO), flags and well-trained dogs. To start pursuing snow geese on your own, you better be ready to crack open the checkbook.
Or simply consider hunting with a reputable outfitter.
Arnold Compton is one such individual who has built a solid reputation as a snow-goose hunting guru in the region. A longtime local, the retired rural electric cooperative worker has chased snows in the spring since the LGCO debuted. He now guides snow goose hunters throughout the LGCO season every year.
"I’ve had a love affair with snow geese since 1999, the year the conservation order came in," Compton says. "It has been amazing to see the evolution of this whole fraternity of outfitters operating during the conservation order."
Snow geese travel in massive flocks, so it makes sense that you’d need giant decoy spreads to attract them. Smaller spreads will work, but typically, the more decoys the better. The number of decoys needed for regular snow goose hunting success inhibits most hunters from participating without the assistance of an outfitter. While there’s nothing stopping anyone from hunting snows on public land with their own spread of decoys, this is a game perhaps best eased into considering the financial investment required.
"Snow geese hunting is an outfitter’s dream because it is cost prohibitive to just jump in and buy 2,000 decoys to try this," Compton says. "With duck hunting, you can sort of do that. A gun, a license and a dozen decoys is all you need to get started. Not so much with snow geese. That’s why I recommend hiring an affordable outfitter and [giving] it a whirl. If you like it, then start throwing your money into it."
Like all hunting pursuits worth undertaking, snow goose hunting offers ample opportunities for frustration. It’ll drive you batty when you’re lying in a blind surrounded by a solid-looking decoy spread, and there’s thousands of snows coming over you that won’t even give you a second look. But nothing is worse than when a flock comes in and hovers right above your spread, studying you from 200 feet up before ultimately breaking off.
"I think people often have the misconception that snow geese hunting might be easy," Compton says. "Folks see these huge flocks and piles of dead birds. But they’re very, very intelligent. It’s not something that you can go out and have regular success with if you don’t have the right equipment."
Back in the early years of the LGCO, he explains, it seemed like every flock at least looked at spreads, with most giving up some potential targets. There was a lot of success in those days. But snow geese are wising up. They can live a long time, with some aging out over 20 years. These birds are hunted about nine months out of the year from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s easy to understand how pressure that intense—over so many years—can educate a species.
Consider it in this way: A 4-year-old gobbler is a pretty old turkey in most places. Now, think how smart that bird is. And it’s only hunted three weeks a year.
Can you imagine how hard it would be to kill a 15-year-old gobbler? Well, that’s exactly what’s going on with some of these snow geese. As hunters, we’ve sort of evolved the species.
Weather is often a factor in snow goose hunting, and it can change a lot during the LGCO in central Missouri. Some of the best days are miserably cold with wet conditions. Other days, you’ll hunt snows in short-sleeved shirts, and you might still do very well. It’s nice to be hunting when it’s 65 degrees. After a chilly morning, it feels great to stretch out in the sun once it’s warmed enough to shed your sweatshirt.
These types of days are great for taking young people out hunting. In fact, snow goose hunting is an awesome all-around hunting experience for youngsters because you’re usually at least seeing birds, and if they work, the action can be fast and furious.
Dan Appelbaum has been hunting with Compton for years. He’s killed piles of snow geese with him, but his favorite memories involve bringing his sons along for hunts.
“Arnold got my boys out on their first snow geese hunts, and the memories we made are treasured,” Appelbaum says. “We had one of those epic hunts where we killed 80 geese over two days. It absolutely ruined them.”
CONSERVATION IN ACTION
The LGCO affords hunters special regulations, which makes for some interesting experiences afield. There is no limit on how many birds can be killed. Shooting time is extended to a half hour before sunrise until a half hour after sunset. The use of electronic calls is legal. Shotguns do not need to be plugged, and some guys even shoot custom guns that hold a dozen shells.
The goal of the LGCO is to reduce numbers, and the regulations are set to make that as feasible as possible. Of course, hunters must still draw birds in and make their shots, but such is always the case.
“Hunting is conservation” is a tagline we’ve heard for years. However, hunting the Light Geese Conservation Order actually puts the saying into practice.
Through relaxed rules and an extended season, hunting is the tool being used to reduce numbers of a species that’s causing serious habitat damage. And central Missouri’s Golden Triangle is one of the finest places to do it in all of North America.
Licensing requirements to stay on the right side of the law
As noted, regulations during the Light Goose Conservation Order are dramatically eased compared to regular waterfowl seasons. Still, to participate in Missouri, residents and non-residents age 16 and older need a Conservation Order Permit. This permit costs $5 for residents and $47 for non-residents. Hunters with a Resident Lifetime Conservation Partner Permit or a Resident Lifetime Small Game Hunting Permit do not need to purchase a Conservation Order Permit.
Resident and non-resident hunters age 15 and younger are not required to purchase any permits in Missouri to take part in this hunting opportunity. However, they must satisfy one of two conditions: They must hunt in the immediate presence of a properly licensed adult hunter 18 or older who has a valid hunter education certification card or was born before Jan. 1, 1967, or they must possess a valid hunter education certification card.